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What It Means For The Mueller Investigation If Michael Cohen Is Credible


CNN is reporting that President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen is prepared to testify that Trump knew much more than he has let on about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The report says Cohen was there when the president's son told his father that some Russians were offering campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton, and that President Trump told him to go ahead with the meeting. The president has denied this story. He said so on Twitter today.

To help us understand now whether Michael Cohen could change the game in the Russia investigation, we're joined now by Barbara McQuade. She's a former U.S. attorney who now teaches law at the University of Michigan. Welcome.


CHANG: So based on this CNN report, if Cohen really does go to federal prosecutors with this information, do you see any potential problems with the government relying on his testimony?

MCQUADE: Well, Michael Cohen is a witness who will be met with some skepticism. If he is seeking to reduce his own criminal exposure - or the fact that he has been out there talking on the media could create some skepticism. So I think what they'll want to do is look for ways to corroborate his information. That could come in the form of other witnesses. Michael Cohen has said that there were others present when he heard this conversation. So that could be important.

Who else was there? Are there any recordings? He has been known to record his conversations. Are there any text messages or email messages that might corroborate that this conversation occurred? So those are the kinds of things that prosecutors would look for. They wouldn't rely on his testimony alone.

CHANG: We should point out that Cohen is being investigated, that he could be a witness that has incentives to make President Trump look bad.

MCQUADE: Yeah, and that could be a challenge. But it's something that prosecutors deal with all the time. They put drug dealers on the stand who are looking for a reduction in their sentence. And it's something they can deal with. A jury will be instructed that they should listen with some skepticism to people who are receiving a benefit in exchange for their testimony.

CHANG: How valuable is Michael Cohen to the Russian investigation overall, do you think?

MCQUADE: I think that Michael Cohen is potentially very valuable to the Russia investigation. You never know until you actually sit down and talk with him. My guess is that the Southern District of New York prosecutors have not met with him yet because they first want to fully explore all of the items that were taken from his office in the search warrant. And they've still been reviewing those for privilege.

And so until they have their arms around those, they probably won't want to sit down with him because they'll want to confront him with all of the evidence that they find there. But potentially, as Trump's lawyer for 17 years, he may know things about Russian interference. He may know things about financial transactions. And so I think he is potentially a very valuable person for them to talk to.

CHANG: Speaking of that attorney-client relationship Michael Cohen had with Trump for so many years, does that potentially pose obstacles to involving Michael Cohen in this investigation because so many of the communications between Trump and Cohen could potentially be privileged?

MCQUADE: Yeah. The attorney-client privilege will protect communications seeking legal advice. But that's the limitation. It's not everything they did together. It's not business transactions that Michael Cohen might have done for President Trump. And there's also something called the crime-fraud exception which says that a person can't hide behind the attorney-client privilege in the commission of a crime. So if they were working together on some sort of fraud or money laundering or election interference, then the privilege would have to yield in that circumstance.

CHANG: Stepping back a little, I have to ask. Does this help or hurt Cohen, this report that he knows Trump approved of this June 2016 meeting? Ultimately, could this be helpful or hurtful?

MCQUADE: Well, the fact that he has the information I think is a good thing for Michael Cohen. It is potentially very valuable information that he could use in exchange for a recommendation of leniency in any sentencing for any criminal exposure he might have. But the fact that it's public I think can harm him. You know, these are conversations that could be had between lawyers for Michael Cohen and prosecutors. They don't have to be aired publicly.

CHANG: We should note that Michael Cohen's lawyer says that this leak did not come from them.

MCQUADE: Yeah. It makes me wonder who it came from. The only other potential party is President Trump himself. It seems harmful to his cause, and so I don't know why he would unless they think that this is going to come out eventually and they'd rather it come out now when they can control the narrative and blunt it a little bit. It's just hard to know. It's purely speculation. But I don't see how it helps Michael Cohen.

CHANG: Law professor Barbara McQuade - she was a U.S. attorney in Michigan until March of last year. Thank you very much.

MCQUADE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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